It’s all Tolkien’s fault, of course. He created races, maps, languages, poems, art… and then decided he better whip up a little story around them.
And everybody’s been trying to do the same since.
It almost seems like new fantasy writers think they have to build a giant background history and world for their characters to walk through like little figurines. How else are you gonna punch your weight in the big leagues of fantasy/sci-fi, right? Gotta outdo the old professor himself.
But any time writers fence themselves in with musts, it shows.
It’s like a picture that’s been photocopied a few times. It resembles the original, but it loses a little more soul with each facsimile. We’ve been reading all about Middle Earth, over and over and over, for decades now. It’s been rearranged, recycled, updated, modified, covered over with thin (sometimes very thin) veneers—but essentially the same.
I love fantasy stories. I grew up with them. But I just don’t think I can read the story of the Wise Old Mentor pushing the Reluctant Farm Boy out onto his quest to find the Weapon and face the Enemy, any more. I just can’t, ok?
(George Lucas can talk all he wants about Joseph Campbell and Archetypes—I call them clichés.)
(And no, Robert Jordan, changing the “trolls” to “trollocs” is not going to make me forget I’m reading the same damn thing!)
I struggled with the world-building bug, too.
When I began writing my novel I spent weeks and weeks fretting over the supposed “rules” of the fantasy genre. I struggled with issues like: What kind of creatures and races will there be? What will be their various histories? And how many hundreds or thousands of years should I go back? What does the map of the world look like? What nations are struggling against one another? What kind of weaponry is used? What is the role of magic in his world?
In other words, I was world-building instead of writing.
World-building has a seductive lure for the fledgling writer. After all, in your world, you’re God. You make the rules. You set world-changing events in motion with a flick of your finger.
You also waste your time, destroy what may have been a good book, and bore your audience to tears with minutiae.
The problem is, once you create that fancy map, you think it belongs in the front of the book. (Go find a fantasy book that doesn’t have one pasted there. Go ahead, I’ll wait.) You create the various races and their politics and history and you think eighty pages of it belongs in your book, whether the plot and characters require it or not. And here’s the real kicker: you utterly drown your characters and scenes in trivia.
I have thrown at least one book across a room that did this. The story was moving along at a good clip, I was starting to sympathize with the plight of the characters and enjoy their interaction when… BAMMO!! Welcome to sixty pages on the six thousand year history of elves. Sixty. Grab your Lembas and settle in! Aren’t you just thrilled to bits??
Can we all agree, as writers, to stop doing this? Pretty please?
The rest of that poor, crumpled book may have been great. I’ll never know.
I know you love all of the interesting details you’ve worked out for your world. If you want me to love them too, then show me, through the story, how they pertain to characters I care about.
But stopping your story midstream to give us a history or a poetry lesson? Ok, so Tolkien did it. I give you the pace-killing Rivendell. But Tolkien was a history and linguistics professor dabbling in fiction writing… that doesn’t mean we have to keep on making his same mistakes over and over, does it? Killing your story so you can show us your world is like, oh, I don’t know… letting your child run across a busy street while you show us the nifty features on his safety seat.
Get your priorities straight!
If you really want people to delight in your world-building skills, go be a game designer. I came for a story.
(Oh, and one more thing: enough with the elves. Seriously. We get it. They’re beautiful, idealized versions of us. Can we move on?)
Have-To’s vs. Can-Do’s
Creating pages of history and creatures and maps are all things beginning fantasy writers think they have to do. The beginning mystery author probably thinks they have to have a misunderstood genius detective and a crime-related puzzle that the bumbling authorities can’t figure out. The war and espionage author thinks he must have pages of technical specs on the latest military hardware we haven’t even heard of.
And we all know, because we are all-too-familiar with the answer, what a beginning horror writer’s big have-to question is: ghost, demon, werewolf, or vampire?
I’m not saying there aren’t any great genius detective stories and great vampire stories. Nor am I saying that these can’t be inventively re-told. They can. But don’t tell us those tales because you think you have to, because you believe you are “writing within a genre”.
If you are, I’m here to tell you you’re struggling with a straightjacket that isn’t tied.
As a reader, I’m not interested in where you think you have to take me to satisfy some unwritten rules. I’m interested in where you can take me.
F*** the rules!
Think back on the stories you love. The really few special ones. Don’t they also have the quality, not of following rules, but of laying down new ones for others to imitate and follow? Don’t they play on your expectations and then completely blow them away?
If you’re a writer, I want to save you two very precious commodities, the two that always seem to be in shortest supply: time and mental power.
If you’re spending your time worried about what the six different races will be and their various internal conflicts and the year-by-year chronology for the past six thousand years and drawing maps of places your characters will never see, you’re wasting both.
You don’t have to! Just tell us a story with interesting characters, and if it is well told and honest, the background details will paint themselves.
And they will be a damn sight more interesting.
And please, I’m begging you, please take us somewhere other than Middle Earth!